In March of 1990, 30 years ago this year, the municipal government of Oka, Quebec, greenlighted the expansion of a 9-hole golf course into an 18-hole golf course. This expansion would have meant cutting down the Sacred Pines, a forest of Pine trees that has also been a burial ground of the Mohawk/ Kanien’kehá:ka Indigenous nation for generations.
In defense of their land, Kanien’kehá:ka warriors built a barricade on a dirt road that would be needed for golf course construction. On June 30, 1990, the Town of Oka was granted an injunction to remove the barricades. In the meantime, the Kanien’kehá:ka prepared to defend themselves and their land. Little did they know that this important act of resistance would launch a 78-day standoff with the governments of Oka, Quebec, and Canada.
In the early hours of July 11, 1990, about 100 armed Sûreté du Québec (SQ) officers entered the Pines with the intention of removing the barricades and around 30 Kanien’kehá:ka warriors. The police used violent tactics, including tear gas, concussion grenades, and guns. During the confusion created by the SQ, one of their corporals, Marcel Lemay, was killed. It has never been conclusively determined who killed Lemay, although many believe it was another SQ officer. The SQ retreated, and the Kanien’kehá:ka warriors were able to reinforce their barricades and roadblock.
During this time, solidarity protests begin across Canada, but most decisively, other Kanien’kehá:ka warriors blocked the Mercier Bridge, a crucial commuter crossing for those who work in Montreal. This helped to bring the government siege against Kanehsatà:ke and Kahnawake into national and international headlines.
From July 11 to September 26, 1990, SQ police and later the Canadian Army led a campaign of fear, intimidation, sabotage, and violence against the Kanehsatà:ke and Kahnawake peoples for defending their traditional territory and right to self-determination.
According to CBC digital archives, “In the end, the Oka Crisis cost the Quebec government an estimated $180 million not including the cost of the army.” It seems the Canadian Army costs doubled the price tag. According to a Globe & Mail article, “Did Canada learn anything from the Oka Crisis?” written by University of Manitoba assistant professor Sean Carleton, “The federal government eventually intervened and spent $200-million to deploy 2,500 troops as a show of force. The standoff eventually ended in a stalemate. The troops and tanks left, and development in Kanesatake stopped temporarily, but the land was not returned to the Mohawks.” After 30 years, this history needs to be taught and recognized, especially in non-Indigenous Canada.
Understanding this event 30 years ago gives important context to ongoing protests such as: the Wet’suwet’en standing against the CGL pipeline, Mi’kmaq defending their fishing rights, and the 1492 Land Back Lane occupation of the McKenzie Meadows development. It shows us that capitalist state violence against Indigenous people is not an accident or based on misunderstanding. This capitalist-colonialist state’s enforced brutality is how settler-colonial imperialist Canada was built and how it is has developed into a so-called ‘first-world’ country. This history also reminds us of the limitations of ideas like ‘reconciliation’ when giving land back and self-determination are not part of the conversation.
In 2018 Carol Off, the host of CBC’s “As It Happens,” interviewed Ellen Gabriel, who was the spokesperson of the People of the Longhouse and the Mohawk/Kanien’kehá:ka warriors during the Oka Crisis.
Off asked Gabriel, “It seems unlikely that any city council would approve a plan to build an 18-hole golf course on disputed Indian land, where there is a graveyard, where there are sacred pines. But we’ve talked to a lot of Indigenous people across the country, who have vowed to block any pipelines to their land. What do you expect that we’re going to see over the next months and years?”
Gabriel responded powerfully, “Well, hopefully — this is my ideal situation — there will be citizens of Canada who will put pressure on their government to uphold the honour of the Crown, to enact the principles of free, prior and informed consent.” Gabriel continued, “You know, these problems are not problems that we’ve created — these are problems that have gone under the status quo of imperialism that if we stand in the way of Canada’s prosperity, we’re dispensable. When government only listens to the corporations, not only are Indigenous people in trouble, but the society as a whole is in trouble because we are all experiencing climate change. So, let’s work together.”
Let us take Gabriel’s powerful words to heart. As we learn about Canada’s past injustices, we must reflect on how they will shape our struggle and demands in the future, how both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people can better support Indigenous nations across Canada in their current and ongoing struggles for fundamental rights, dignity, and self-determination.
Until liberation is achieved our struggle will continue. As Che Guevara said, “¡Venceremos!” We Will Win!
Follow Tamara on Twitter: @THans01
To learn more about the uprising at Kanehsatà:ke / Oka Crisis, please consider viewing the following documentaries:
• “Kahnesatake: 270 Years of Resistance” the groundbreaking documentary from Alanis Obomsawin, an Abenaki filmmaker who spent 78-days filming the standoff:
• “Rocks at Whiskey Trench” also from Alanis Obomsawin:
• “Legend of the Storm” from Roxann Whitebean, a member of Kahnawake who six years was old during the uprising at Kanehsatà:ke / Oka Crisis:
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